In the past forty years there has been an influx of interest concerning environmental issues and in turn ecocritical theory has gained popularity in literary circles. Since the language of ecocriticism has been developed almost exclusively over the past half century, it can be somewhat anachronistic to project certain ideas developed in that time onto works that were written in the centuries leading up to the ecocritical movement. Ecocritic Lawrence Buell though suggests that the ecocritic must “retrospectively enlist” (Buell, 16) the works of authors who wrote before the advent of ecocritical theory. Such an enlistment can enhance the ecocritical canon and lend a history and depth to the conversations pertaining to ecological issues. American poet Robert Frost seems like an ideal candidate for such enlistment, not only because he wrote in the decades immediately preceding the birth of ecocriticism, but also because the natural world was such a large component of his writing. Frost may or may not have been an environmentally conscious person, but whether or not this is the case, there does exists in his work an element of nature that is appealing to the ecocritic. The question though is more complicated. It is not simply: Is there an element of the natural world in Frost’s work? but rather: Can the implications of Frost’s work be read as fitting inside the framework of ecocritical theory? or: Can Frost’s work be read as working toward the same goals of ecocriticism? The short answer is: Yes. While certain problematic situations arise in some potential readings of Frost’s work, overall it does appear to fit quite well in the framework of ecocriticism and seems to be working toward many of the same goals. The field of ecocriticism was birthed sometime after Frost’s death, but the concepts present in ecocritical theory were very much present during Frost’s lifetime and were forwarded by Transcendentalists like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman. Considering that context, it is very possible that Frost’s work, being informed by the Transcendentalist tradition, does lend itself to an ecocritical reading, and when placed in the context of both other American poets who wrote about nature, and the theory laid down by ecocritics, it becomes clear that Frost’s work does in fact seem to be working toward many of the same ends of ecocriticism. To come to this conclusion though is a complicated process. One must first outline the goals of ecocritical theory, which can be challenging since, as is the case with many forms of literary theory, not all critics who adopt a given critical approach agree with all other critics who write under the banner of the same critical method. After finding middle ground between the most accepted principles in ecocriticism, one must do a responsible reading of Frost’s work to contextualize it in the framework of ecocritical theory.
It is perhaps Emerson who first identified some of the core principles of ecocriticism in his essay ‘Nature’. Ecocritic Lawrence Buell, for example, suggests that“human beings [are] ecologically or environmentally embedded”(Buell, 8) but notes also that humanity, for the most part, sees itself as separate from the environment and calls for a “remediation of humankind’s alienation from the natural world” (8). This appears to be an echo of Emerson’s words as he stated that “all that is separate from us, all which Philosophy distinguishes as the NOT ME, that is, both nature and art, all other men and my own body, must be ranked under this name, NATURE” (Emerson, 30), reinforcing the sentiment by stating that “all natural objects make a kindred impression” (31). Emerson clearly illustrates interconnectedness between all things. Such ideas areshared both by ecocritic Dana Phillips, who suggests the “world of nature and the world of men are parts of the same world” (Rosendale, 150), and Louis H. Palmer who suggests other “species and cultures can no longer be seen as other” (172). Likewise Neil Evernden suggests that “humanity is literally part of Nature” (Evernden, 93). It seems fair then to conclude that the concept of humanity being embedded in the natural world is an ideal commonly held by many ecocritics and is therefore one that can fairly be applied to Frost’s work.
Once the notion of humanity being a part of nature is accepted, it leads to another core belief of ecocritics: the need to move away from anthropocentric view. Ecocritics like Glen A. Love challenges what is seen as a “narrowly anthropocentric view of what is consequential in life” (Rosendale, xvi). This anthropocentric view, or as Neil Evernden refers to it, Humanism, is “a form of philosophy which places humanity at the center, displacing God, nature, and all other deities” (Evernden, 31). This anthropocentric approach adopted by most Humanists is a shared target of almost all ecocritics, though not all critics agree on how humanity should move forward. Some critics suggest that a strictly biocentric, or rather, ecocentric approach needs to be taken. As Luc Ferry points out in his monograph The New Ecological Order, humanity’s “relationship with nature, now one-directional and inegalitarian, must go from ‘parasitic’ to ‘symbiotic’” (Ferry, 71). Some suggest that humanity must remain the focus and adopt a ‘garden’ model. Catherine Kinzler notes that the “French garden, crafted, pruned, designed, calculated, overly subtle, artificial, and forced is ultimately… more natural than a wild forest” (95), while Ferry suggests that nature “should be disciplined, polished, and cultivated, in short… humanized” (96). Michael Pollan agrees as he asserts that humanity is, “like it or not, lords of creation” (Rosendale, 169). It seems that the garden model, while perhaps not completely in tune with nature, is the best solution ecocritics can currently postulate. Neil Evernden acknowledges the views of such ecocritics stating that nature “is perceived to be in danger, and it is up to us to devise the means of salvation” (Evernden, 3), but he also recognizes that while “‘stewardship’ of nature, which will permit us to husband all organisms just as we do our domestic animals” has its critics who suggest that this approach is “inadequate at best, or is the source of the problem at worst” (100). Evernden admits, however, that “it is difficult to provide an alternative” (100). Our actions, Evernden notes, “seem destined to disappoint” (120) and while he does not outright oppose what he calls “wise stewards[hip]” (121) or “global domestication” (120), he borrows a term from Richard Jeffries who defines that natural world as a “divine chaos” (120) and suggests that ultimately if “we would save the world, we must first set it free” (130). Doing so, though, may be “beyond our ability” (130). Without a clear solution though, it seem that Sylvia Bowerbank puts it as well as it can be articulated when she states: “All we humans can do is to keep reinventing nature collectively, as we go along, working out the snags” (Bowerbank, 6). Though Evernden does provide what may perhaps be called a dissenting voice to the ‘garden’ model, he does seem to agree that the anthropocentric view is flawed and needs to be replaced, and it is clear that most ecocritics concede that the ‘garden model’ is the best option currently available.
If a biocentric or ecocentric approach is adopted, then it follows that the natural world warrants equality with the human world, an equality that implies an autonomous natural world which carries an intrinsic value that justifies its preservation. Though this is a notion presented by contemporary ecocritics, it is not one that originated in the 20th century. Emerson again articulated such thoughts when he wrote that in “the wilderness, [he found] something more dear and connate than in streets or villages” (Emerson, 33), suggesting that the natural world cannot only be seen as equal to the human world, but greater than it. Emerson romanticizes about “a property in the horizon which no man has but he whose eye can integrate all the parts… This is the best part of these men’s farms, yet to this their warranty-deeds give no title” (31). Here Emerson asserts that there are elements of nature that humanity cannot take ownership over, implying an autonomy thought by many to be exclusive to the human realm. Thoreau echoes this sentiment when he details a narrative that saw him sell a farm back to a farmer, noting that even after the sale he “retained the landscape, and [had] since annually carried off what it yielded without a wheelbarrow” (Thoreau, 57), implying again that there are elements of the natural world that cannot be yoked by humanity. It is perhaps those elements of the natural world that can be yoked that are of most concern to the ecocritic though, and so contemporary ecocritics have forwarded this logic and extended it to parts of nature outside of landscape. Ferry, for example, notes that for medieval society, “as creatures of God the animals possessed the same rights as men” (Ferry, IX), and suggests the same mentality be adopted today, whilst extending it to apply to the land as well. Christopher D. Stone argues for as much when he suggests that if “we could get the courts thinking about [nature] itself as a jural person – the way corporations are ‘persons’” (XVII), then vast improvements could be made to forward environmental concerns. Ferry notes that the “fact that one may possess an IQ that is higher than the mean…. confers no additional rights” (33), and so the same logic may be applied to nature, suggesting that just because humanity may be able to extol reason does not mean that elements of the natural world that are not able to do should be precluded from same rights. It may seem extreme, but Ferry is not alone in his thinking. Jules Michelet refers to nature as humanity’s “inferior brother” (24), George Clemenceau refers to animals as “our brothers below” (24), and Arne Naess and George Sessions seem to share similar sentiments as they note that humanity has “no right to reduce… richness and diversity except to satisfy vital needs” (67). Martin W. Lewis likewise suggests that “‘the best hope for ecological salvation” is for “the foreseeable future [to] actively manage the planet to ensure the survival of as much biological diversity as possible” (Bowerbank, 10). Jeremy Bentham hopes that it “may one day come to be recognized that the number of legs, the villosity of the skin, or the termination of the os sacrum are reasons equally insufficient for abandoning a sensitive being to the same fate” (Ferry, 27) as other groups who have been oppressed for reasons as trivial as skin colour, faith, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation or gender. Though legal equality for the natural realm may seem like an aspiration that is unpractical or unobtainable, or even strictly polemic, it is a theme that while not universally accepted by all ecocritics, is one that is prevalent.
Finally there is also a popular thread in ecocriticism which proposes that nature has a voice and needs representation. Ferry suggests that to “learn a foreign language, to open oneself up… to understanding another culture, remains and will always remain, in this sense, the mark of a ‘broadened mind’” (6) and that humanity should apply such a method to the natural world. Ynestra King articulates this sentiment stating: “‘We have to be the voice of the invisible, of nature who cannot speak for herself in the political arenas of our society’” (Bowerbank, 3). Buell admits that “no human can speak as the environment, as nature, [or] as a nonhuman animal” (Buell, 7), but at the same time acknowledges that an attempt to understand nature must be made. David Gilcrest notes that the “voice of nonhuman nature has taken on a significance that transcends the poetic conceit” (Gilcrest, 44). This notion that nature has a voice also implies that nature has its own narrative and history which is outside and independent of the human narrative and human history. Both speaking for nature, as well as listening to it are core principles of ecocriticism and manifest themselves most frequently in poetry via literary devices such as personification and apostrophe.
In looking over the works of many ecocritics, several things become clear: Humanity must recognize that it is a part of the natural world and work to repair the reparation that exists between the two realms. Anthropocentric views must be abandoned in favour of ecocentric or biocentric perspectives, with the ‘garden model’ serving as our best available option. The environment must be recognized as equal to humanity and nature’s intrinsic rights must be respected and protected. Nature has a voice and humanity must try to understand it and give it representation in the human realm. With these ecocritical precepts established, there is a frame work with which we can try to contextualize Frost’s work.
When examining the work of any poet, it is best perhaps to start with an examination of the form employed by the poet. Emerson noted that in “the wilderness, [he found] something more dear and connate than in streets or villages” (Emerson, 33), so it seems that rejecting human constructs might be a good start. This is problematic for any poet since language is itself a human construct, but even when embracing such a construct it is possible to challenge it, as well as other constructs. Whitman is perhaps the best example of such a rejection of constructs. Not only does he challenge language by indulging in onomatopoeia in poems like ‘To a Locomotive in Winter’ when he describes the sounds of the train with terms like: pant, roar, blenching and shrieks (Whitman, 482-483), but Whitman also describes them in terms that transcend human constructs with phrases like “lawless music” (483), akin to that of a bird’s song, whilst also comparing the sounds to natural emissions such as that of “an earthquake” (483). Whitman also challenges form. Rather than picking up on traditions handed down through generations, Whitman rejects rhyme scheme entirely, as well as metre, adopting instead free verse which has no constraints and allows Whitman to write in a style that could be called more natural, or wild, or at the very least, less contrived. Whitman seems to have adopted John Milton’s maxim that “rhyme [is] no necessary adjunct or true ornament of… good verse” and is the “invention of a barbarous age” (Milton, 1), whilst also rejecting, as Milton did, “lame metre” (1). Considering that Frost’s work came after Whitman, it would be fair to expect that if Frost adopted Transcendentalist maxims as Whitman did, and embraced the natural world over that of the humanly constructed world, that he too would use free verse form. Looking at his work, however, such freedom from constructs seems, at a glance, utterly lacking. Frost, on the surface at least, seems to be one of the poets Milton claimed were “carried away by custom” (1). Indeed, when one reads Frost’s ‘Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening’, it becomes clear that Frost strictly adheres to iambic tetrameter whilst also employing exacting rhyming couplets mixed with alternating rhymes that connect each stanza. Each stanza is comprised of four lines, mirroring the four metric feet in each line, whilst the poem itself has four stanzas, making it quite exceptional in its symmetry. Such a carefully constructed poem would suggest a carefully constructed order, whilst also suggesting that the writer applied constraints that seem to embrace constructs rather than rejecting them. This serves as an example though; an illustration that Frost is a talented enough poet that should he so desire to do so, he is more than capable of replicating any traditional form. When one reads other poems, like ‘The Road Not Taken’, it can be assumed that his failure to either make each line a perfect tetrameter or a perfect pentameter is not a failure at all, but a conscious choice. Frost, like Whitman, is challenging the form, but is doings so more subtly. Rather than following a more traditional pentameter or tetrameter, Frost opts to use both within this poem, but more often employs a hypermetric form. Though some might argue that this is simply an indication of Frost’s limitations or deficiencies as a poet, poems like ‘Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening’ demonstrate that Frost is more than capable of writing perfect metric forms. Coupled with this is the fact that Frost unnecessarily added words like “Oh” to start a line (29). Frost could have easily omitted the “Oh” from the line so that it would equal the length of the preceding line, but instead Frost seems to intentionally ensure the lines do not mirror each other metrically. As for rhyme, though Frost does embrace rhyme, it is not applied universally to all of his poetry. Poems such as ‘The Star Splitter’, ‘Maple’ ‘The Axe-Helve’ and ‘Paul’s Wife’, among many others, use blank verse. While maintaining metric symmetry in most such poems, Frost does not always employ rhyme and so can be seen as challenging traditional forms. Such practices seem to openly challenge the accepted constructs, whilst also suggesting that structure is still needed, but rather than adopting an arbitrary set a rules, a more practical set of rules needs to be implemented. Such an approach can be seen as a parallel, whether intended by the author or not, of the ‘garden’ approach suggested by many ecocritics who believe that the old system of constructs need to be exchanged for a new system that is more practical and takes the natural world into consideration. Though Frost’s form, at a casual glance, may not seem to challenge traditional forms of poetry, upon closer examination it becomes clear that Frost does indeed challenge traditional forms, but rather than embracing free verse like Whitman, he adopts his own constructs.
Frost’s experimentations with from is not articulated strictly through meter, but also through content. The sonnet, for example, is a traditional form commonly associate with courtly love. Frost adopts the form, but challenges it at the same time by incorporating a less traditional subject matter in ‘Never Again Would Bird’s Song Be the Same’. The poem is an Edenic scene where Eve is mentioned several times, but Eve is not the subject of the poem. Instead Frost writes about birds. The sonnet, though, is a poem whose form is meant to speak of courtly love, and Frost rejects this subject matter, replacing it with a subject from the natural world and uplifting nature in the process, suggesting equality between the love for a woman, and the love for nature. Traditionally, the love of the sonnet is an unobtainable love, and to put the natural realm in the sonnet format suggests that nature can also be seen as unobtainable, not only in that it cannot be possessed but also because its voice cannot be truly understood by humanity.
Frost does not speak only through form though, but through content as well. The birds of the poem, who have “heard the day long voice of Eve”, have added Eve’s voice “to their own”, adopting her “tone of meaning, but without the words” (Frost, 369). Such observations fit well with an ecocritical reading in that they suggest fluidity between the human world, in this instance Eve, and the natural world, represented by the birds. The birds are able to understand and carry Eve’s meaning in their song, but do so without words, suggesting that though the natural world does not have a language translatable to the human world, they are nonetheless capable of communicating meaning through the voices they possess. Employing birds to suggest that the natural world has the ability to communicate appears to be a tact borrowed from Whitman. Though Frost was reluctant to employ’s Whitman’s free verse form, he seems eager here to appropriate Whitman’s use of the bird as an agent of communication. Whitman refers to a bird as “dearest brother” (355) in his poem ‘When Lilacs Last In the Dooryard Bloom’d’, and goes onto write that the bird sings a “human song, with [a] vice of uttermost woe” (355). Whitman also refers to the bird’s song as “the carol of the bird” (346), using the word ‘carol’ which carries with it religious implications. Here, as in Frost, there is a suggestion that the natural realm, via the bird, can communicate human emotions and sentiments, and can even comprehend religion. Whitman also employs the bird in his poem ‘Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking’ where he again refers to the bird as a brother and suggests that the bird sings words that are “stronger and more delicious than any” (275) and writes that he is “translating the notes” (277) of the bird into words. With Frost’s poem we see a manifestation of this trend in Whitman’s work where the voice of the bird is one that is worth listening to and one that is capable of expressing human emotions and sentiments, lending a voice to the natural realm that is placed on a par with the voice of humanity. Frost also writes that the voice of Eve would “never be lost” (Frost, 369), suggesting that the bird can hand down traditions through generations and implying that the natural world has its own history.
There is also an observation on the part of the narrator that the feminine voice of Eve “has eloquence” that could “only have an influence on birds” (369), suggesting that nature is more capable of understanding women than is man. This carries an interesting ecofeminist interpretation as Sylvia Bowerbank notes that speaking “for nature is… gendered” (Bowerbank, 2) as the natural realm and feminine realm have both been yoked “as objects of man’s use, possession and pleasure” (3). Eve and nature are in tune with each other, while the masculine realm is excluded. An ecofeminist perspective, though important as a polemic argument, can be limiting in that ecofeminist critics like King suggest that women“‘have to be the voice of the invisible, of nature who cannot speak for herself in the political arenas of our society’” (3). Such a stance limits the ecocritical conversation to the feminine realm whilst eliminating nearly half the world’s population from the conversation. Such exploitation is not exclusive to the natural and feminine realms though, as Ferry notes: “the rights of nature has now come, after that of children, women, blacks, [and] Indians” (Ferry, XVIII), while also challenging the reader to “consider that, to varying degrees, Chinese, women, and blacks could not hold legal rights” (XVIII). Still, there does exist a clear correlation between the exploitation of nature and the exploitation of women, and it seems clear that in this poem, Frost’s work can certainly be seen as highlighting that correlation and in turn challenges the reader to consider how once we have accepted that the exploitation of one realm is morally questionable, we must then accept that the exploitation of another realm is equally problematic.
This is not the only instance in which Frost challenges traditional form by manipulating the subject of a sonnet, as he does the same in his poem ‘Design’. With ‘Never Again Would Bird’s Song Be the Same’, Frost does include a woman in the poem, but in ‘Design’, the human form is present only as an observer. The content, though exclusively nonhuman, is problematic in how it presents nature. The speaker observes a spider that is in the process of consuming a moth and the speaker suggests the insects represent “characters of death and blight” (Frost, 330); not a flattering presentation in the least. One is reminded of William Blake’s poem ‘The Tyger’. In both poems an observer is surveying a creature they find terrifying, and yet beautiful, and in both instances the observer is left with queries unanswered, questioning in each the design. Blake asks: “What immortal hand or eye/ Dare frame thy fearful symmetry” (Blake, 121)? Likewise, Frost’s observer asks: “What… design… govern a thing so small” (Frost, 331)? Both poems see the observer conclude with unanswered questions. This approach helps to articulate Buell’s assessment that “no human can speak as the environment, as nature, as a nonhuman animal” (Buell, 7). Both these observers try to understand the destructive forces of nature but have no answers and therefore cannot speak for, or as nature. Again, aligning nature with the unobtainable love, Frost suggests that the natural realm, or at least understanding of the natural realm, is equally unobtainable and works to support Buell’s claim that “no human can speak as the environment, as nature, [or] as a nonhuman animal” (Buell, 7).
Though a lack of understanding is problematic, this seems to be a step forward from the work of Emily Dickinson who shares a similar subject matter in her poem ‘A Bird Came Up the Walk’, where her narrator witnesses a bird bite “an Angleworm in halves” (Dickinson, 40). Dickinson’s narrator presumes to attribute human motives to the carnivore being observed, stating that the bird “hopped sidewise to… let a Beetle pass” (Dickinson), as if the bird were moving out of the way like a person might. Dickinson, like Frost, describes the scene in human terms; Frost when he describes the moth as “rigid satin cloth” and as a “paper kite” (Frost, 330, 331); Dickinson when she describes the crown of the bird as “velvet” (Dickinson, 40) and compares the bird’s flight to rowing. Such metaphors demonstrate the limitations of human understanding of the natural realm, but Frost’s narrator is not arrogant enough to draw conclusions, and instead asks questions like: “What had that flower to do with being white”? and “What brought the kindred spider to that height” (Frost, 331)? Such questions are absent from Dickinson’s poem. Instead of drawing conclusions, Frost’s observer concedes ignorance by asking unanswered questions, seemingly borrowing from Blake’s approach. Frost’s observer though differentiates himself/herself from Blake’s observer when she/he uses the word ‘kindred’ to describe the spider. Blake’s observer asks: “Did he who make the lamb make thee?” (Blake, 121), and so questions whether or not the lamb and the tiger, and by extension whether or not the human form and the tiger, come from the same source. Frost, even upon witnessing the murderous nature of the spider refers to it as kindred, conceding that the spider, and by extension the natural realm, is kindred to the human realm. This seems to be an affirmation of Emerson who suggested “all natural objects make a kindred impression” (Emerson, 31). This kindred relationship is perhaps confirmed by the title of the poem. By titling the poem ‘Design’, the poet seems to be answering the question presented by poem’s narrator, conceding that yes, design does “govern… a thing so small” (Frost, 331), putting the natural world, even its most minute denizens, on a par with the design of the human form and moving the conversation on nature presented by Blake and Dickinson forward.
Such equality between the human and natural realm is present in many of Frost’s poems, but perhaps none more so than in ‘Two Look At Two’. Frost equates romantic love with the love for nature by placing nature as the subject in his sonnets, a tactic that is present in ‘Two Look At Two’ as well. The poem begins by suggesting that: “Love and forgetting” might have carried the hikers further up the mountainside, and the reader is tempted to believe that it is a romantic love between the two hikers. The source or object of this love though is ambiguous in the opening line and it remains ambiguous until the end of the poem when, after having brought out two beautiful creatures for the hikers to see, Frost writes that the earth had “returned their love” (Frost, 255). This final line makes clear that the love of the first line was a love for the earth, or rather, for nature, and that the natural realm returned this love by sharing its beauty with the hikers. Not only does this suggest that the natural world is capable of reciprocating emotively, but it suggests, as Frost’s sonnets do, that the love of and for nature can be seen as equal to romantic love, affirming claims of ecocritics who profess that the natural realm is no less than equal to the human realm.
The equality present in the poem extends far beyond love though. The title of the poem alludes to a pair of hikers who have reached a wall and before turning back the two hikers see two deer; first a doe and then a buck. The title eliminates the differences between the two species in question and instead identifies them only by their respective numbers: two. The title serves almost as a math equation in which the two components are equal. This equality is furthered by the language of the poem as Frost describes the distance each party has from the wall in parity terms when he writes that the doe was “as near the wall as” (Frost, 255) the hikers. This line is repeated again when Frost describes the buck’s distance from the wall, driving home the fact that the two species are not only equal in number, but equal in distance from the wall dividing them. This geographic equality, and equality in numbers, then suggests that there are other equalities inherent between the two that need to be recognized, a reading that is very much in line with ecocritics like Clemenceau who see animals as “our brothers below” (Ferry, 24) and believe that there is an inherent equality between humanity and nature.
Frost presents the two sides as equals, but does acknowledge a break between them, manifest in the “tumbled wall” (Frost, 254). This tumbled wall could be seen as representative of what Buell refers to as humanity’s“alienation from the natural world” (Buell, 8). The human world is separated from the natural world via human constructs, in this poem represented by the tumbled wall, which can in turn be seen as an extension of Humanism. As Gilcrest notes, “Frost’s division of the two ‘fields’ is artificial” (Gilcrest, 119), an artificial construct that questions the authenticity of the human realm. Frost articulates this through the voice of the buck, who says: “‘Why… don’t you give some sign of life? Because you can’t./ I doubt if you’re as living as you look’” (Frost, 255). The authenticity of life in the human realm is questioned by the representative of the natural realm. This suggestion that there is a difference in the life experience of humanity compounds what the wall has made obvious; that humanity has be alienated from the natural world and that a remediation is required.
In personifying the buck by attributing spoken words to him, Frost lends a voice to the natural world that also lends itself to an ecocritical reading. As Gilcrest points out, the “voice of nonhuman nature has taken on a significance that transcends the poetic conceit” (Gilcrest, 44) and this, though literally a poetic conceit, does suggest a transcending of the conceit itself. Perhaps more importantly than transcending the poetic conceit, the poem suggests that nature transcends language. The hikers in the poem decided that it is time to end their journey and state: “‘This is all’” (Frost, 255), vainly attempting to assert an end to a narrative they have no true control over. Nature usurps the narrative dictated by human language and inserts another experience: the entry of the doe. Once the doe has passed the hikers again try to define the narrative, stating: “‘This, then, is all” (255). Again nature asserts authority and interjects another piece of the narrative, this time by introducing a buck. Humanity twice attempts to define their experience with nature, but discover that language has no bearing over nature. There is also a non-verbal exchange. Frost writes at the beginning that: “Love and forgetting” (254) were guiding the hikers, but this love is never verbally expressed by the hikers, yet Frost writes in the final line that nature “returned their love” (255), demonstrating that the natural realm transcends language. It understands feelings without an articulation of these feelings and responds without words. The poem seems to affirm Buell’s assertion that “no human can speak as the environment, as nature, [or] as a nonhuman animal” (Buell, 7), while also demonstrating that nature has its own narrative and history that is independent of humanity.
This is not the only instance in which Frost demonstrates how nature can overcome human constructs. In ‘Mending Wall’, a wall, not very different from the tumbled wall of ‘Two Look At Two’ is the subject of a poem. The wall is put in place to separate property lines, but Frost’s narrator notes that there is something “that doesn’t love a wall” (Frost, 53) and describes how “the frozen-ground swell… spills the upper boulders (53) of the wall over the course of the winter. The natural realm seems to revolt against this human construct as the ground swells in the winter and brings down the wall. The narrator notes also that hunters come by and leave “not one stone on stone”, though they do this to “please the yelping dogs” (53). Even in this instance, where the human hunters are deconstructing the wall, they do so to please an element of the natural realm, an element that communicates their displeasure by yelping. Such sentiments are echoed in ‘In a Vale’ when the narrator of the poem speaks to the song of the birds stating that he did not “vainly… dwell” nor “vainly listen all the night long” (35), suggesting that listening to the voice on nature, who in the poem communicates via the song of the bird and the odor of the flowers, is an important experience, presenting such interaction in terms that are not dissimilar to Whitman’s presentation of birds and flowers in ‘When Lilacs Last In the Dooryard Bloom’d’. Nature’s ability to communicate through flowers may seem odd, but Frost articulate this sentiment again in the poem ‘Flower Gathering’ which details the day of a man who leaves his lover to acquire flowers to present to her. In the poem the man wishes to express his feelings to his lover and does so, not through language, but through the gift of flowers. The flowers express and epitomize the feelings for which there seem to be no words and nature alone is able to transcend language to communicate these feelings. Such instances clearly demonstrate that nature does, in Frost’s poetry at least, have a voice and that voice transcends language and human constructs, both via the swelling ground and the yelping of the dogs.
‘Mending Wall’ also speaks to the break between humanity and nature and how creating such ‘otherness’, via a wall, serves not only to alienate humanity from nature, but also serves to alienate humanity from other elements of humanity. The narrator of the poem and her/his neighbour grow apple trees and pine trees respectively, and the wall prevents the two from having contact with the other. As Mary Houston Davis and Elizabeth Lamar Rose note, these “are walls of needless estrangement” that “act as barriers between themselves and other people” (Davis/Rose, 70). The narrator though does not know what the purpose of the wall is and asks what he/she “was walling in or walling out” (Frost, 54) when constructing the wall. That wall, it seems, is a tradition handed down from generation to generation. The neighbour suggests that “‘Good fences make good neighbours’” (53). This is not the neighbour’s own observation, but rather “his father’s saying” (54) which the narrator assumes the neighbour will not “go behind” (54). As a result the pretense of the wall is continued despite the fact that neither the narrator nor the neighbour can articulate the value of such a wall. As the neighbour rebuilds the fence, the narrator describes the scene, saying that he “moves in darkness” (54). This is a telling line because it alludes to the wall creating darkness. This darkness can be literal, but also metaphorical. It can allude to an ignorance perpetuated by custom in that the neighbour unquestioningly subscribes to his father’s maxim, which was likely not originated by the father either, and how maintaining this divide maintains the ignorance that it creates. The narrator and nature both seem eager to tear the wall down, but the human construct of the wall is preserved by the construct of maxims like ‘good fences make good neighbours’. Though this may seem ambiguous, when examined in the context of ‘The Road Not Taken’, Frost’s assessments of such maxims becomes clear.
In ‘The Road Not Taken’, the poem’s narrator comes across a place where two “roads diverged in a yellow wood” (129). We see throughout the poem that the narrator tries to apply reason and logic in deciding which road to take, and the final line of the poem makes it clear which maxim the narrator was hoping to apply when she/he states that he/she will claim to have taken “the one less travelled” (129). The maxim though proves unfit for such an application. The human world has constructed a maxim where two very different roads are to be chosen from, but such drastic differences don’t exist in the natural realm, or at least not in this instance. Instead, one path is “just as fair” as the other and the two paths were, as the narrator states, “really about the same”. The narrator expresses her/his frustration when he/she states that she/he will claim to have taken the road less travelled “with a sigh” (129) some years in the future, when in all practicality the maxim served no benefit whatsoever and demonstrated how human constructs cannot always be employed to solve natural phenomenon. The maxim constructed by the human world does not apply universally to the natural world, demonstrating a disconnect between the two realms that mirrors how the construct of the wall in ‘Mending Wall’ does not work with nature as nature’s swelling ground breaks up the wall each winter. The maxim that ‘good fences make good neighbours’, which serves to support the wall then, like the maxim about the ‘road less traveled’, becomes problematic as it serves no real purpose and so both poems serve to demonstrate the disconnect that exists between nature and human constructs whilst also demonstrating humanity’s tendency to hang onto traditions that serve no purpose. Education then, in such instances, can be seen as a handicap.
There is a line that speaks to humanity’s relationship with nature in ‘The Road Not Taken’ which seems to be a common thread in Frosts work. In the poem, Frost’s narrator states that paths had “leaves no step had trodden black” (129). This suggests that the influence humanity has on nature is poisonous, or corrupting in that the human foot would turn leaves black. Such language is not unique to ‘The Road Not Take’, but rather is an example of a pattern that is present in Frosts work. A similar sentiment is expressed in the poem ‘Ghost House’, when Frost describes the “footpath down to the well” as being “healed” (Frost, 25). This suggests that the footpath to the well, created by humanity, was akin to a wound or scar upon the natural realm and that in the absence of humanity, a healing process had begun where nature railed against the tyranny of humanity. This seems to be a chorus of sorts present in Frost’s work as the ‘Mending Wall’ also presents an instances where nature attempts to free itself of human construct of the mending wall which fell apart each winter due to the swelling of the ground. This exploitation of nature is a common thread that is peppered through Frost’s work but is perhaps best exemplified in his poem ‘A Brook In the City’. Rather than simply alluding to humanity’s corruption of nature, Frost spends the entirety of the poem detailing the destruction and corruption of a brook as a city expands to consume a farm house and the brook near it. The “meadow grass [is] cemented down”, while the “apple trees [are] sent to hearth stone flame” and “cinder loads” (257) are used to block the brook. This is a scene of pure, parasitic consumption. In place of the brook is a “sewer dungeon under stone” where the brooks is forced to run in “fetid darkness” (257). The poem details the polluting effect humanity has on nature that is only alluded to through careful word selection in poems like ‘Ghost House’ and ‘The Road Not Taken’ and further demonstrates the break that exists between humanity and nature that is alluded to in ‘Mending Wall’ and ‘Two Look At Two’. The break is not only alienating, but also dissolves a potentially harmonious relationship between the human and natural spheres, allowing humanity to become a parasitic element in relation to the natural world.
Frost though doesn’t simply portray the fracture that exists; he also demonstrates a more ideal relationship that embodies fluidity, a fluidity which humanity can aspire to. Frost not only display such harmonious relationships between various elements of nature, but between humanity and nature as well. ‘Leaves Compared to Flowers’ is a simple poem whose content is easily discernible by its title. In it the narrator compares the blossoms of trees to flowers, but when the narrator solicits others to discern which is fairer, they “did not have a wit to say” (325). There then exists equality between the two that suggest they are not so different, even interrelated. This is furthered in Frost’s poem ‘In a Vale’ which exemplifies the interconnectivity that exists between elements of nature. The human narrator, who has been listening to the song of the birds and smelling the scent of the flower states that the bird “and flower were one and the same” (35). This implication that the two are one in the same suggests the two are imbedded in the same realm and are extensions of each other. A connection between elements of the natural world may suggest that there is a connection between the natural world and the human world as well, but it is not explicit in this poem. In the poem ‘Maple’ however, Frost does make that connection explicit. The poem, which, one might assume upon first glance is about a tree, is actually a poem about a young girl named Maple. Maple’s father tells the young girl the story of how she was named and notes that her mother had rejected names like: “Lesley, Carol, Irma, [and] Marogie” because they signified “nothing” (206). The name Maple was chosen then because the mother foresaw that the tree of the same name had something in common with her daughter. The mother then rejects, to a certain extent, the construct of language. The common names which she rejects are arbitrary symbols that have no meaning. The word ‘maple’, though arbitrary, does have a meaning beyond simply being a name, and that meaning is tied in with the natural realm. The mother therefore rejects constructed names for a name that is symbolic of nature. Rather than giving her daughter a name that would be associated with other humans, the mother chooses a name that will associate her daughter with the natural sphere, there by suggesting an inherent connection between the two realms. In the same poem, when speaking of the relationship between the parents and the child, Frost writes that the “flower was different from the parent seed” (206), again defining this human relationship in natural terms, much like the male lover in ‘Flower Gathering’ looked to express his love through nature via the flower he brought his lover. We see a pattern in Frost’s work where humanity is defined by and relates their experience through the natural realm, illustrating that the human realm, though it may perceive itself as separate from the natural sphere, is very much imbedded in it.
The employment of apostrophe also serves to demonstrate that humanity is embedded in the natural realm as Helena Feder notes in her essay ‘Ecocriticism, New Historicism, and Romantic Apostrophe’ when she suggests that “any invocation of the natural world is a recognition that reciprocity is embedded in the very interconnectedness of all things” (Rosendale, 44). Apostrophe is extremely common in the works of Whitman, such as in ‘When Lilacs Last In the Dooryard Bloom’d’ and ‘Out Of the Cradle, Endlessly Rocking’ when he speaks to birds, but Frost tends more often to write poems about elements in nature and not to elements in nature. The approach is often used as a means to justify nature to the human reader, but Frost does indulge in several instances of apostrophe in his work. ‘Tree At My Window’ is a prime example. In the poem the narrator expresses that he/she wishes there “never be a curtain” (Frost, 277) between the tree and the narrator. The comment lends autonomy to the tree, but also suggests that a human construct, the curtain, is a potential barrier between the human and natural realm and that the narrator prefers the absence of that construct. In the poem ‘Goodbye and Keep Cold’, Frost’s narrator will be parted from an orchard for the winter season and speaks to the orchard before leaving, as if the orchard were a lover that was to be separated for a time. One is reminded of John Donne’s ‘A Valediction Forbidding Mourning’ as Frost, much like he did with the sonnet form, suggests a parallel between the romantic love for woman and the love for nature. ‘October’ is another example of Frost’s employment of apostrophe, in this instance speaking to the month October and calling upon it to perform the tasks associated with the fall, asking it to “[b]eguile us all” (47), which suggests an autonomy in the natural world in that the poem’s narrator is asking nature to perform these tasks, implying that nature chooses whether it does these things or not. In ‘Happiness Makes Up In Height For What It Lacks In Length’, Frost’s narrator speaks more broadly, addressing in this instance the world. The narrator suggests that the world has provided her/him with “warmth and light” and “perfect weather” (363) and late in the poem suggests a union between the two entities when the narrator refers to the shadows they each cast as being “ours” (364). Here the human narrator acknowledges that she/he is one with the world in which he/she lives. This heightens the effect of the apostrophe by not only suggesting that the natural realm is autonomous, but also by suggesting that humanity is embedded in it. Frost extends this use of apostrophe to the stars in his poem ‘Take Some-thing Like a Star’ where the narrator speaks to a star and in the dialogue acknowledges the disconnect between nature and humanity. He/she asks the star to talk in “Fahrenheit [and] Centigrade” or to use a “language [humanity] can comprehend” (437). This is an admission that humanity lacks the tools needed to understand nature, but recognizes the need for that understanding and suggests that there are ways humanity can read nature through scientific methods, hence the reference to Fahrenheit and Centigrade. This feeds into the suggestion made by ecocritics like Buell who suggests that everybody should strive to be “science-literate” (Buell, 18), but it also demonstrate the disconnect within humanity as humanity is clearly not a homogeneous society since it cannot even agree on what method should be employed to measure temperature. Though apostrophe is not as prolific in Frost’s work as it is in Whitman’s work, he does employ it effectively in several instances and in the process recognizes nature as an autonomous entity whose voice humanity should try to understand.
While it is clear that Frosts suggests humanity needs to recognize nature as an autonomous entity and make a conscious effort to understand an accommodate it, such an understanding would be hard to achieve since the two realms are so different, and in no poem is this difference more clearly articulated than in ‘The Bear’. The poem is dependent largely on the juxtaposition between a bear, interacting with her surroundings, and a human subject, interacting with his environment. Frost’s gender selection is interesting. Since Frost often fails to identify the gender of the creatures and people that populate his poems, it is safe to assume that lending a specific gender to these beings was a conscious choice, and one that fits in with the ecofeminist reading present in ‘Never Again Would Birds’ Songs Be The Same’. Just as nature could understand Eve while the masculine realm could not, the inverse is present in this poem. The female figure is able to navigate the natural realm while the masculine realm is again ostracized, this time from nature. The bear draws a tree “down as if it were a lover”, suggesting a connectivity between plant and animal life, and then allows it to “snap back upright in the sky” (295). This interaction is one that both feeds the bear, providing it sustenance, but also allows nature to return as it was unharmed. Once the fruit of the tree passes through the bear’s digestive system, the seeds of its fruit will be deposited on the ground in a mass of fertilizer. It is a true symbiotic relationship. When the bear comes across a human construct, she triumphs over it, climbing over barbed-wire, displaying the “uncaged progress of the bear” (295). Humanity though is described in opposing terms and is a “poor bear in a cage” (296). The man is depicted as sitting before a telescope and a microscope, placing him between “two metaphysical extremes” (296) and taking him out of his natural environment. Science and philosophy weigh the man down. He grapples with an “inward rage… rejecting all his mind suggests”, while at “one extreme agreeing with one Greek” before “agreeing with another Greek” (296). Going from two extremes, be they from one philosopher to another, or one scientific lens to another, leads the man to “pace… back and forth” and “shuffle… his feet” without progress. He is unable to surmount these human constructs, while the bear easily surmounted the human construct put before her in the barbed-wire fence. The motions the man makes are without direction and therefore without results, where as the bear’s motions are simple and purposeful and far more efficient and productive. The closing couplet articulates the juxtaposition effectively, describing humanity as: “A baggy figure equally pathetic/ When sedentary and when peripatetic” (296). The bear seems to be a strictly peripatetic figure, but one that is productive. Aligning the human figures with Grecian philosophers, especially peripatetic ones, suggests allusions to Aristotelian pedagogy where the teacher would walk about with students following him as he instructed them. This of course, did not manifest itself in any sort of physical product, unlike the work of the bear, and so it is aligned with the world of science where sedentary figures sit in a lab peering through one lens (a microscope) or another (telescope). Like Aristotle’s peripatetic schools, these sedentary figures produce no actual product. This is a polemic presentation of course as many productive things do come from such studies, but these studies also withdraw humanity from the natural world when not employed in moderation and with reason, and so the human figure walks in circles while like a “poor bear in a cage” (296), while the bear, free of such human constraints, indulges in cherries and engages in nature.
Not all of the humans in Frost’s work as so consumed with human constructs; many, in fact, romanticize the natural realm and perhaps none more so than the narrator of ‘Stopping By Woods On a Snowy Evening’. In the poem the narrator describes the woods she/he is passing and expresses a concern for the ownership of the woods, but suggests that the owner will not see the narrator “stopping… [t]o watch his woods” (250). This seems to follow the Transcendentalist approach presented by both Emerson and Thoreau. Emerson states: farmers own the land, but “none of them owns the landscape” (Emerson, 31). Thoreau echoes this sentiment when he says that after selling a farm, he “retained the landscape, and [that he had] since annually carried off what it yielded without a wheelbarrow” (Thoreau, 57). Frost’s narrator seems to be of the same mind as she/he makes no mention of appropriating anything from the woods and is simply enjoying the view. The narrator isn’t the only one challenging the ownership though, as nature itself is filling the “woods… up with snow” (Frost, 250), disregarding human ownership and asserting itself in the woods. Though an admirer of the woods, the narrator does display some of the Frostian elements present in humanity’s disconnect with nature. The narrator suggests that his/her horse “must think it queer/ To stop without a farmhouse near” (250). This is projecting a human frame of reference onto the horse. The horse may very well think to queer to stop at a farmhouse and not the inverse, but the narrator projects human sensibilities onto the horse, even going so far as to suggest that when the horse “gives his harness bells a shake” it is to “ask if there is some mistake” (250), reinforcing this humanization of the horse. Frost’s narrator states that the hardness bells are “his”, meaning the horse’s. This is an interesting word choice which may very well have been unconscious. In referring to the harness bells as belonging to the horse, this seems to imply that the horse, a representative of nature, has property rights over something, which supports Stone’s argument about getting “the courts thinking about [nature] itself as a jural person – the way corporations are ‘persons’” (Ferry, XVII). Ownership is generally a right leant only to humans, but the narrator lends it to a horse in this instance, whether consciously or not. If conscious, this certainly lends itself to an ecocritical reading, but if unconscious, it still remains a powerful ecocritical tool in that it implies humanity is subconsciously able to recognize nature’s autonomy and innate rights. The poem closes with allusions to the human realm when the narrator states that she/he “has promises to keep” (Frost, 250), alluding to elements of the human world, obligations in the form of promises, that lure him/her away from the natural world. The poem ends, not with the narrator making a choice to leave the woods, but rather repeating the second last line of the poem, suggesting that the narrator is still meditating on what decision she/he will make. It is ambiguous, but perhaps fitting as even ecocritics like Evernden, who have carefully considered humanity’s relationship with nature, still do not have a finite answer in how to turn humanity’s parasitic approach to nature into a symbiotic one. The poem works on several levels; it recognizes the innate beauty of nature; it recognizes nature’s ownership over itself in that nature disregards the man who claims ownership on the woods and delivers snow regardless of what the man who perceives himself as the owner might say on the issue; it recognizes nature’s rights to ownership in relation to the horse’s bells; and recognizes that the natural world has as much pull on the human world as the human world does on itself.
A comprehensive examination of Frost’s work would take up several volumes since cataloguing the titles of his poems alone would take up no less than a dozen pages, so it is perhaps unfair to finitely state that all of Frost’s work is ecocritical, especially considering that such a label would be somewhat anachronistic, but in examining a number of his works, selected from his earliest collection to his last, and most in between, it seems it is fair to say that much of Frost’s work does in fact lend itself to an ecocritical reading. Though his form does not challenge traditional constructs in the way Whitman’s did, it can be reconciled to an ecocritical reading as is seen in poems like ‘Design’ and ‘Never Again Would Bird’s Song Be the Same’ as well as many of his blank verse poems. Works like ‘The Road Not Taken’ and ‘Mending Wall’ challenge the value of human constructs and lessons, as does ‘The Bear’ which also juxtaposes nature and humanity, uplifting nature in the process. Poems like ‘Two Look At Two’ and ‘Stopping By Woods On a Snowy Evening’ uplifts the love for nature and Frost’s numerous examples of apostrophe implies a sentient, autonomous entity within nature that exists in some form or another. Frost’s poems recognize this autonomy and presents nature as an entity that has its own voice and its own history. It is a realm that is presented as equal to, if not superior to, the human realm in many instances. It demands humanity rescind the anthropocentric view of what is important in life that has been adopted in the post-Humanist world and suggests that a biocentric or ecocentric model that recognizes nature’s innate rights be adopted in its place. Each of these poems addresses the fracture that exists between humanity and nature, suggesting a remediation between the two spheres. The influence Emerson and Thoreau had on Frost is clear, and it is clear that much the ecocritical theory that has be espoused since the advent of ecocriticism can be successfully applied to much of Frost’s work. Buell recognizes the need to “retrospectively enlist” (Buell, 16) works of authors who wrote in the centuries leading up to the ecocritical explosion of the late 20th century in order to build a canon of work that carries an ecocritical reading to give ecocriticism the kind of depth and history that other literary approaches employ. It seems upon examining a cross section of his most popular works, as well as some of his lesser known works, that Frost is a leading candidate for such appropriation, or rather, enlistment, and that his work would greatly enrich the ecocritical canon.
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